Wrinkle creams: Your guide to younger looking skin

Do over-the-counter wrinkle creams really reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles? It depends.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

People buy nonprescription wrinkle creams and lotions with the hope that these products can reduce wrinkles and prevent or reverse damage caused by the sun.

Do they work? That often depends on the products' ingredients and how long you use them. Because these over-the-counter (OTC) wrinkle creams aren't classified as drugs, they're not required to undergo scientific research to prove their effectiveness.

If you're looking for a face-lift in a bottle, you probably won't find it in OTC wrinkle creams. The benefits of these products are usually only slight.

Common ingredients in anti-wrinkle creams

Moisturizing alone can improve the appearance of your skin. It temporarily plumps the skin, making lines and wrinkles less visible. Moisturizers are lotions, creams, gels and serums made of water, oils and other ingredients, such as proteins, waxes, glycerin, lactate and urea.

Wrinkle creams often are moisturizers with active ingredients that offer additional benefits. These added ingredients are intended to improve skin tone, texture, fine lines and wrinkles. The effectiveness of these products depends in part on your skin type and the active ingredient or ingredients.

Here are common ingredients that may result in some improvement in in the appearance of your skin.

  • Retinoids. This term is used for vitamin A compounds, such as retinol and retinoic acid. These ingredients have long been used topically to help repair sun-damaged skin and reduce fine lines and wrinkles.
  • Vitamin C (ascorbic acid). Vitamin C is a potent antioxidant, which means it protects the skin from free radicals — unstable oxygen molecules that break down skin cells and cause wrinkles. Vitamin C may help protect skin from sun damage and reduce fine lines and wrinkles. Before and between uses, wrinkle creams containing vitamin C must be stored in a way that protects them from air and sunlight.
  • Hydroxy acids. Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) include glycolic, citric and lactic acid. They are used to remove dead skin cells (exfoliate). Using an AHA product regularly prepares your skin to better absorb other products and stimulates the growth of smooth, evenly pigmented new skin.

    AHAs, beta hydroxyl acids and a newer form called polyhydroxy acids have also been shown to be effective in reducing fine lines and wrinkles.

  • Coenzyme Q10. This ingredient may help reduce fine wrinkles around the eyes and protect the skin from sun damage.
  • Peptides. These molecules occur naturally in living organisms. Certain peptides are able to stimulate collagen production, and have been shown to improve skin texture and wrinkling.
  • Tea extracts. Green, black and oolong tea contain compounds with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Wrinkle creams are most likely to use green tea extracts.
  • Grape seed extract. In addition to its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, grape seed extract promotes collagen production.
  • Niacinamide. A potent antioxidant, this substance is related to vitamin B-3 (niacin). It helps reduce water loss in the skin and may improve skin elasticity.

No guarantees: Assessing safety and effectiveness

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) classifies creams and lotions as cosmetics, which are defined as having no medical value. So the FDA regulates them less strictly than it does drugs. This means that cosmetic products don't undergo the same rigorous testing for safety and effectiveness that topically applied medications undergo.

Because the FDA doesn't evaluate cosmetic products for effectiveness, there's no guarantee that any OTC product will reduce your wrinkles.

Consider these points when judging the merits of using a wrinkle cream:

  • Cost. Cost has no relationship to effectiveness. A wrinkle cream that's more costly may not be more effective than a less costly product.
  • Lower doses. Nonprescription wrinkle creams contain lower concentrations of active ingredients than do prescription creams. So results, if any, are limited and usually short-lived.
  • Multiple ingredients. A product with two or three active ingredients is not necessarily more effective than a product with just one of them. Likewise, using several anti-wrinkle products at the same time may irritate your skin rather than benefit it.
  • Daily use. You'll likely need to use the wrinkle cream once or twice a day for many weeks before noticing any improvement. And once you discontinue using the product, your skin is likely to return to its original appearance.
  • Side effects. Some products may cause skin irritation, rashes, burning or redness. Be sure to read and follow the product instructions to limit side effects. It may help to select products that don't cause allergic reactions (hypoallergenic) or acne (noncomedogenic). Choose products that offer a consumer hotline in case you have questions.
  • Individual differences. Just because your friend swears by a product doesn't mean it will work for you. People have different skin types. No one product works the same for everyone.

Your anti-wrinkle regimen

An anti-wrinkle cream may lessen the appearance of your wrinkles, depending on how often you use it, the type and amount of active ingredient in the wrinkle cream, and the type of wrinkles you want to treat.

But if you want to take the guesswork out of your skin care regimen, try these more reliable ways to improve and maintain your skin's appearance:

  • Protect your skin from the sun. Exposure to UV light speeds up the natural aging process of your skin, causing wrinkles and rough, blotchy skin. In fact, sun exposure is the No. 1 reason for signs of aging in the skin, including uneven pigmentation. Protect your skin — and prevent future wrinkles — by limiting the time you spend in the sun and always wearing protective clothing and a hat. Also, use sunscreen on exposed skin year-round when outdoors.
  • Choose products with built-in sunscreen. When selecting skin care products, choose those with a built-in SPF of at least 15. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends SPF of 30 or higher. Also, use products that are broad spectrum, meaning they block both UVA and UVB rays, and water resistant. Apply sunscreen generously, and reapply every two hours — or more often if you're swimming or perspiring.
  • Use moisturizers. Moisturizers can't prevent wrinkles, but they trap water in the skin, temporarily masking tiny lines and creases.
  • Don't smoke. Smoking causes narrowing of the blood vessels in the outermost layers of your skin. It also damages collagen and elastin — fibers that give your skin its strength and elasticity. As a result, skin begins to sag and wrinkle prematurely. Even if you've smoked for years or smoked heavily, you can still improve your skin tone and texture and prevent future wrinkles by quitting smoking.

A dermatologist can help you create a personalized skin care plan by assessing your skin type, evaluating your skin's condition and recommending products likely to be effective. If you're looking for more-dramatic results, a dermatologist can recommend medical treatments for wrinkles, including prescription creams, botulinum toxin (Botox) injections or skin-resurfacing techniques.

Nov. 20, 2019 See more In-depth